When it comes to infidelity, whether or not someone has cheated isn't always black and white. But now that there's a new term floating around — micro-cheating — it may complicate matters even further. So what is micro-cheating? It's a nifty new word used to describe all the little ways someone might cheat on their partner, without technically doing so. An emotional affair involves having strong feelings for someone who isn't your partner, and thus talking to them and thinking about them in a way that's more than just a little friendly. And a physical affair usually means acting on those feelings.
But micro-cheating is something else entirely, with its own set of definitions. "Micro-cheating is when you do [things] that might not be considered outright infidelity, but are nonetheless breaches of trust that could lead to genuine cheating in the future," certified counselor Jonathan Bennett tells Bustle.
And the problem is, these habits — while not as blatant as a full-on emotional or physical affair — can be just as damaging to a relationship. "Micro-cheating can negatively impact relationships because, even though the actions seem small and inconsequential by themselves, they can lead to a gradual erosion of trust."
While reading the signs below, keep in mind that we're all human, so it's OK if you find another person attractive, or catch up with an ex on social media. Micro-cheating is more about your intention, motivation, and the secrecy of it all than it is the actions themselves. That said, here are a few habits experts say can count as micro-cheating — and lead to more problems down the road — if you're not careful.
1. Getting A Bit Obsessed With Someone's Social Media Page
While it's obviously OK to follow friends, coworkers, exes, and even strangers on social media that you find attractive, it's important to be wary of your motives. "If you look at your crush's Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. on a daily basis, it's a sign you may be micro-cheating," therapist Kimberly Hershenson, LMSW, tells Bustle. Following along because you think they're super hot, or because you have a little bit of a crush, counts as cheating — even if you aren't necessarily reaching out to them or physically acting on your feelings/desires.
This is especially true if the need to check their page takes priority over your relationship — for example, you're lying in bed night after night scrolling their Insta instead of talking to your partner. Checking someone else's social media is fine. Commenting occasionally is totally OK. But becoming infatuated and liking their every post? Not so much.
2. Turning To Someone Other Than Your Partner For Emotional Support
If you have a web of social support that includes friends and family, that's great; you definitely don't need to rely solely on your partner, or only turn to them when you're feeling down.
But if you reach out to a potential love interest — maybe an ex, or an attractive coworker — because you'd rather hear what they have to say than what your partner has to say, or you feel like they "understand you" better than your partner does, Hershenson says that's when it crosses over into the realm of micro-cheating.
Again, having multiple people in your life to provide with support is a-OK. But if you were honest with yourself, would you agree that calling another person when you're down feels more like an emotional affair? As Hershenson says, "If you are channeling emotional energy into someone else over your partner all the time, it’s an issue."
3. Keeping "Back Up" Partners On Hand
One thing many micro-cheaters do is secretly stay in contact with people they view as potential love interests just in case their current relationship fails. "They usually feel some level of attraction to their back-burners and refuse to cut off full contact," says Bennett.
And while that may be one way of planning ahead for the worst, it's usually more about having options and thus not fully committing to your partner . Bennett says that keeping someone on the back-burner, even under the the "friendship" label, counts as micro-cheating.
4. Downplaying Your Relationship
Let's say you're out at a bar, chatting up someone you find attractive and interesting. Do you mention your partner? Do you take off your wedding ring? Do you get their number, and hide it in your phone? These are all forms of micro-cheating — even if you have no intention of going home with them.
Badmouthing your partner, or making light of your relationship, counts too, since it's a minor way of making yourself seem more available than you are. "If you have a friend who you know has sexual feelings for you and you badmouth your partner to that person in private, it crosses a definite line," says Bennett. "You should have enough respect for your partner not to speak negatively about [them] around those you know have romantic feelings for you. If you need to vent, find a therapist, neutral friend, or family member."
5. Keeping Tabs On An Ex
While it's normal to maintain a platonic friendship with an ex, and even OK to check in years later to see what an old flame is up to, it's not so normal to follow their every mood, keep them "in your back pocket," or feel super sad when they find a new partner and are thus no longer on the market.
"Keeping tabs on your ex or crush on social media constantly could be a type of micro-cheating," Bennett says. "It’s OK to check up on someone occasionally. This is natural curiosity. But, if you stalk the social media of an ex or someone you find attractive, it crosses a line."
6. Keeping Old Dating Profiles, Or Making New Ones
Even if you just have a dating app to peruse or enjoy the occasional bit of attention, it may not be the best thing for your relationship. "Being on there means that you are looking and still interested in other people," Isabel James, founder of Elite Dating Managers, tells Bustle. "Scanning profiles online is micro-cheating because it shows intent and is also a lack of respect for the other person, since the profiles are public." It can create a messy, hurtful situation that does your partner no favors.
7. Hanging Out With Someone You Find Attractive
Again, it's normal to find other people attractive, and you obviously can't help who you work with or who is part of your friend group. But going out of your way to attend a gathering simply because you're kind of into someone may not be a good idea.
"You might go out with a group of coworkers socially just because one of the coworkers who you are attracted to is going to be there," clinical psychologist Dr. Josh Klapow says. "Even if you're not going to do anything, since you will be with others, if you go because they're there, that's micro-cheating."
By knowing what micro-cheating looks like, it'll be easier to avoid falling into the habits that can undermine your relationship, break your partner's trust, and lead to unnecessary issues down the road.